Saturday, August 05, 2017


I received an oversized postcard summoning me to go online and fill out a “Juror Qualification Questionnaire” for the “United States District Court District of Montana.”  For a little flash of a moment I thought I was being summoned to Washington DC to serve on the Grand Jury for Mueller.  Now THAT would be worthwhile!

But no, online was just a conventional list of further questions: job, cell phone number, etc.  I went through it quickly and no sweat.  EXCEPT that I objected to many of the questions for the same reasons that I should be disqualified from most juries now.  Assumptions.  Juries aren’t supposed to have assumptions and mine are so different from the mainstream that I derail the system.

For instance, they want to know what race I am.  I am of the opinion that race is an empty category, that almost everyone is a mix, that it predicates something genetic when it is really about culture, and that we are not ready to ask for DNA results in order to qualify for jury duty — even if we were, one’s culture doesn’t necessarily match one’s DNA.  What does race have to do with being on a jury anyway except to skew it?  But the larger country is not yet ready to put on questionnaires “how do you self-identify racially?”  Nor do they offer any categories for what they call “sex” (no box to check for yes, no, or “it depends”) though they mean gender anyway.

Then I was surprised:  people over 75 can ask to be exempted, so I did.  Not so much because of my own age as because of the age of my pickup which might not survive a daily drive to Great Falls, esp. once winter weather kicks in.  I sent the questionnaire and got an answer saying it was “successfully processed” as though I’d ordered pet supplies on the Internet.

I was once called for possible jury duty in Portland.  A young man was being tried for rape.  The prosecutor knew I’d been a minister and assumed I would be a Christian minister condemning a rapist.  He asked if I had ever counselled a rapist.  I had.  He wanted to know whether the rapist were guilty or innocent.  I said guilty.  He wanted to know how I knew and I told him that the culprit had told me himself.  He was disconcerted and dismissed me.  A psychologist was also let go for the same reason.  The cultural template didn’t fit us.  The young man on trial stared at us.  He was also confused.

In Montana, maybe fifteen years ago, I was called for a civil suit jury.  (Tort law — you can sue for harm regardless of laws.)  A young woman about to enter college on an athletic scholarship was driving a small car on the main street of the town, travelling slowly.  A big delivery truck hit her from the rear.  It had just come off the interstate and hadn’t slowed quickly enough.  Her whiplash injury lost her the scholarship.

There were two problems.  One was local knowledge of the parties involved and jurist’s opinions based on that.  One older woman on the jury was full of gossip and dispensed it to us as relevant: the family dynamics of the girl, the history of the company that owned the delivery truck, the psych hangups of the girl’s father and the success of his business — on and on and on.  One tries not to hear it, tries not to be affected by it.  

During the trial there was the testimony of a guy who did botox treatments for whiplash — a dubious semi-medical person who testified at trials across the country.  He reeked of snake oil.  The funniest moment came after the prosecutor had been trying to prove that the truck was negligently unmaintained and claimed his cracked windshield was crucial.  Then we went out in a group to lunch and saw the judge drive off in his car — with a cracked windshield.

The more serious problem was something that I did that should have aborted the trial.  The man we elected foreman was afraid of retaliation from the girl’s family so I covered for him by pretending to be the foreman.  I thought the task was only a matter of guiding the considerations and didn’t realize that I would have to swear accuracy and responsibility in the end. It was arrogant as hell for me to propose deception.  Then someone changed their vote, the jury was canvassed one-by-one, and everything was revealed.  I could have been sued myself, or jailed for contempt of court.  There probably ought to have been a retrial, but if there was, I didn’t hear about it.  The young woman got married.  The judge got into trouble over something else entirely and lost the next election.

Justice is a majestic theory.  It is a principle, like honesty, dependability, honor, and other intangibles.  The law, the written law, is a way of at least rendering the situation discussable, reduced to specifics.  But we humans want “gladiator justice”, either death by combat, or some overruling judge, thumbs up or thumbs down (like McCain).  We get impatient with the slow accumulation of documents that require search, interpretation, recording (like Mueller).

Recently at a town council meeting, one of the members refused to believe that there was any such thing as tort law.  To him, law could not be based on principles and if there were no written law forbidding something, then it was okay.  In fact, if the law could be closely parsed for its exact meaning, then one could walk through the interstices of what was said.  For instance, treaty law was evaded by the US government by re-defining the legal documents as “agreements”.  Treaties are between nations and therefore can override lesser merely national laws.  The goal was to get rid of the idea of the Native Americans being nations, which is being refought now through arguments over sovereignty, the right to rule oneself because of being a nation.  But is today’s tribe a nation?  What is a nation?

So now that questionnaire’s assumptions seem more serious.  What if I’m transgender and there is no way to register that, no box to check?  What if my race is simply unknown — just a little dark?  What if I’m not quite 75 but will be next week but must swear everything on this questionnaire is true?  (Actually I'm not quite 79.)  Why is there no exemption for living a hundred miles away from the courtroom in a place where roads become impassible in winter?

1 comment:

PBurns said...

A nice read. Smart and true.